BELINDA ALEXANDRA Southern Ruby. Reviewed by Sally Nimon
Southern Ruby is an epic story with deep themes, presented in an entertaining way.
Southern Ruby, the seventh novel by Australian author Belinda Alexandra, is an epic traversing two continents and three generations in pursuit of one central question: are we the masters of our own destiny, or are our lives irrevocably shaped by those who have gone before?
The story opens in early 21st-century Sydney, where Amanda, a young woman with a keen interest in historical architecture and a Masters in restoration, is working for a real-estate agent selling mock-Regency homes. Despite being a self-confessed technology addict (‘I was addicted to my mobile phone, laptop and iPod’), her real yearning is for the past: ‘I was drawn to things with a sense of history like a bee is to flowers’. However, despite landing the odd commission, she finds the pickings for restoration professionals to be slim, stating that ‘Sydneysiders were as enthusiastic about capital gains as they were about renovating and my fantasy of a commission like that was a long shot’.
There are two ironies here. One is that the 2004 setting precedes the great reality TV boom in which enthusiasm for all things DIY became a national pastime. One could argue that if Amanda had chosen to hang around in Sydney for a few more years she would soon have had all the renovations her nostalgic heart could handle, but that would have made for a different kind of novel.
The other is that while Amanda may yearn for a sense of the past, she lacks any knowledge of her own. Orphaned at a young age, all she knows of her parents is what her grandmother has grudgingly told her: that they met in New Orleans; that they were far too young when they were killed in a car crash; and that her drunken, jazz musician father had been driving.
So great is the aftermath of this trauma that her grandmother has erased every trace of that father’s existence from their lives. There are no images, no stories, no tolerance of his name being uttered. Even idle experiments in picking out jazz classics like ‘Summertime’ on the piano are banned. The only image Amanda has of him is the face that gazes back at her when she looks in the mirror – a face so unlike her grandmother’s or the numerous photographs of her mother that it has to have come from somewhere else.
Amanda is right. It does. And that ‘somewhere else’ turns out to be New Orleans, a world that opens its doors to her on the sudden death of her grandmother. Through the discovery of a secret stash of old letters, Amanda discovers that she is really Amandine, named for the 1890-era villa where she was born and which houses her paternal grandmother, Vivienne de Villeray, known to her friends as Ruby.
If Amanda is an orphan with no family ties, Ruby has a surfeit of them, being the current matriarch of a Creole bloodline that ‘had once been favourites of the French King’. Amanda’s lack of a sense of family had given her the freedom to choose her own path, which she did by following her passion for old architecture. But as Ruby’s narrative begins to unfold we learn that for her these ties were a straitjacket, dictating strict behavioural confines, even when obeying them meant destitution. For women of her class, work was not an option, even when the situation was desperate:
The fortunes of the women of the de Villeray family had always been tied to their menfolk. And the men had squandered those fortunes and left us bereft … I was very aware that Maman, Mae and I would be out on the streets the moment [Uncle Rex] drew his last breath.
But Ruby is nothing if not a fighter, and she refuses to be bowed by convention. She is also a storyteller, and we learn very early on that she considers the quality of the story to be far superior to such small details as the truth. During her first step into the world of commerce, leading tourists on ghost tours, she openly states: ‘Although it was the first tour I’d ever run, I made up supernatural experiences that had occurred on my other tours.’ She invents another story, too, about a picturesque house called Amandine, which she decides to make her last stop. Here she tells the crowd of the fictional murder of Mr Parkinson, that results in his body being hidden under the porch. When Clifford, the owner of the house, unexpectedly joins the tour, she is relieved to find this story is met with amusement, rather than anger.
Ruby is, therefore, an unreliable narrator. But while this is often used as a device to cast doubt on what is being told, here Alexandra is doing something different. Story is at the heart of New Orleans, built deep into its foundations. Fiction and reality sit side by side, seeping through the separating membrane to infiltrate each other. For example, the body of Mr Parkinson may be fictional, but Amanda soon learns that there is a secret lying hidden under Amandine’s porch.
Ruby’s narrative is not intended to deceive, but to teach. Through story, she is attempting to guide the next generation as to how they can continue the city’s legacy. When Clifford invites her on a tour of Amandine she learns that:
‘The furnishings have come from all over the United States and Europe,’ Kitty explained. ‘Each generation adds something of their own to the mix’.
This is the message at the heart of Southern Ruby: we are all born with the architecture laid down by our ancestors, which we then flavour with something of our own before passing it on to our children. In the end, it is her personal story that is Ruby’s real gift to Amanda, in the same way that story is the gift that the city of New Orleans gives to all its children. And the city is going to need all the gifts it has as it faces the onset of its greatest test: Hurricane Katrina.
For a book with such deep themes, Southern Ruby is an easy read, told in an entertaining narrative that draws us along like a conversation with a close friend. It is a thought-provoking novel that should leave the reader feeling satisfied as well as entertained.
Belinda Alexandra Southern Ruby HarperCollins 2016 PB 576pp $32.99
Sally Nimon once graduated from university with an Honours degree majoring in English literature and has hung around higher education ever since. She is also an avid reader and keen devourer of stories, whatever the genre.
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